Here’s what’s happening on gun laws, a year after South Florida high school mass shooting shattered a community

Gun control advocates rally at the Capitol. Mitch Perry photo

This Thursday marks the one-year anniversary that a troubled ex-student opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, shooting 31 people and killing 17.

The tragedy ranked among Florida’s worst mass shootings, behind the 2016 Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting. On that June night, a 29-year-old security guard carrying semiautomatic weapons opened fire in a crowded gay nightclub’s “Latin Night,” shooting 102 people. Forty-nine people died and 53 were wounded.

For whatever reason – and there are many theories – the Parkland tragedy was the shooting that, for once, spurred the Republican-led Florida Legislature to enact the first state restrictions on guns in a generation.

Still, some critics say the state’s new gun-control law just doesn’t go far enough. It imposes a three-day waiting period on gun purchases, gives law enforcement greater power to seize weapons and ammunition from people deemed mentally unfit, and bans so-called “bump” stocks – devices which make it possible for a shooter to kill more victims faster. It also raises the age to purchase a firearm from 18 to 21, and dedicates state money to train certain local school staffers to carry weapons on school grounds as part of a new “Guardian” program.

Arming teachers?

When the 2019 Florida Legislature convenes on March 5, lawmakers will face new proposals to both expand and restrict gun rights. Surely the most hotly contested bill on guns is by the Florida Senate Education Committee. It’s a contentious proposal that would allow school districts to arm teachers – that differs from the current law, which excluded classroom teachers.

“I have this visual of someone sitting at a chalkboard with a gun bouncing off his hip or bouncing off his shoulder,” says Tampa Democrat state Sen. Janet Cruz. “Is this America? Is this really what we want?”

Momentum to arm school personnel – including teachers – began last summer when Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who chaired the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, reversed his previous stance and said he supports arming teachers.

“The point is, we have to do something differently than what we’re doing now if we want and expect a different outcome,” Gualtieri says. “I’m not saying arm everybody. That’s a far cry from what I’m saying. If you have select people who are properly vetted, properly trained … wouldn’t you want your people to be the best trained?”

Like other parents at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Fred Guttenberg is bracing for the one-year anniversary of his 14-year-old daughter Jaime’s ’s senseless death.

But arming teachers, he said, is “the stupidest, most moronic idea possible.”

Kissimmee Democrat state Sen. Victor Torres, a former New York City transit police officer, agrees: “It should be law enforcement, period.”

Little surprise that the National Rifle Association supports the idea.

“I absolutely believe that teachers should be allowed if they’re trained – background checks, go through the hoops – do everything that’s possible,” says Bill Bunting, NRA member and former Republican Party of Florida Second Amendment Chairman. “I’ve got grandchildren. I want somebody in the school who’s reputable, honest, decent, but well trained to be there and to carry a firearm.”

Sheriff Gualtieri says the school Guardian program actually requires more firearms training than the Florida Police Training Academy does. He says critics are peddling a false narrative “knee-jerk” reaction.

“There aren’t enough cops – and there can’t be enough cops – today to put a cop in every school in Florida,” he says. His focus is on “what can you live with and make a difference?” to prevent children from being murdered.

Parents and students become activists

A week after the Parkland shooting, several thousand people gathered in one of the largest demonstrations in years at the Capitol to advocate for more gun safety. That advocacy has continued for people like Marjory Stoneman Douglas parent Guttenberg.

“I’m not going to stop. Not until we get this reform done,” Guttenberg said this week. “Whether it be traveling to D.C. and holding people accountable there or traveling to my state house in Tallahassee and holding people accountable there, and working to support more people like (Agriculture Commissioner) Nikki Fried, who will do everything they can to push for increased gun safety in this state and others, I won’t stop. No parent should have to go through what my family is going through.”

Guttenberg was sitting in a committee room in Washington last week with Manuel Oliver, whose son Joaquin was also shot and killed in Parkland. The two men verbally objected after Northwest Florida Republican Congressman Matt Gaetz suggested that a U.S. border wall would prevent more gun deaths than a background check law for gun purchases. Gaetz then pointed at Oliver and called for him to be ejected from the premises, a move Guttenberg called “despicable.”

“To think that he has to listen to a congressman like speak to him that way was horrific,” Guttenberg says. “Manuel didn’t stand for it. I couldn’t stand for it.”

While gun-control advocates mostly applauded the Legislature’s actions after Parkland, some questioned why lawmakers didn’t act after the horrifying Pulse nightclub shooting two years before.

Brandon Wolf was in the gay nightclub that night and lost two close friends.

“I’ve often wondered if we were a little too gay, a little too brown to catch people’s attention in the Florida Legislature,” Wolf says. “You either have to square that legislators only did something because we were approaching an election, or they only did something because the victims and the families looked and sounded like they did, and neither one of those things is good.”

Expanding background checks?

Last week, more than 500 activists with the nonprofit gun-control group Moms Demand Action flooded the state Capitol, meeting with lawmakers and pushing a background check bill that would require anyone transferring a gun to go through a licensed firearms dealer, eliminating a major loophole in Florida law that allows people to bypass background checks by doing business online or through private gun sales.

“We would like to expand that criminal background check system, just to ensure that guns are not getting in the wrong hands of convicted felons and domestic abusers, people with dangerous mental illness and history,”  says Kate Kile, a Tallahassee Moms Demand Action leader.

“It shouldn’t impact folks who are law abiding gun-owners,” adds Gainesville resident Margaret Hamer. “We’re really just trying to keep dangerous people from having easy access to weapons.”

The background-check bill sponsored in the state House of Representatives by Sarasota Democrat Rep. Margaret Good, and it has been predictably denounced by the National Rifle Association. With Republicans holding majorities in both the House and Senate, Democrats need bipartisan support to get legislation passed.

When asked last week about the chances of her bill getting heard in the Criminal Justice Subcommittee, she told a reporter to ask the chairman, Tampa/St. Pete Republican Rep. Jamie Grant. He was standing just a few feet away. Grant said a background check is “effectively a gun registry,” and he won’t support it. (Gun registries are not allowed in Florida under state statute 790.335).

Good argues her bill doesn’t create any registry, but simply extends current background check requirements from licensed dealers to private transfers. “I look forward to working with Chair Grant to alleviate his concerns and pass legislation to ensure a background check is complete with every gun purchase.”

More gun legislation this year

Here’s a look at some of the other gun legislation filed for the 2019 session:

– Miami Gardens Democrat state Sen. Oscar Braynon has filed two measures: one would restrict the public places where people are allowed to openly carry a handgun or a concealed weapon.

The other would revise the standards that a shooter could invoke to use the controversial “stand your ground” self-defense law. State Republicans are unlikely to support that proposal. Last summer, they rejected a call by Braynon and other Democrats to convene a special session after a stand your ground case involving a Clearwater man made national news.

Braynon says he’ll continue to introduce such bills, regardless of the political realities in Tallahassee. And he also says that he doesn’t understand why the Legislature was compelled to act after Parkland, but not after widespread gun violence that has taken place in recent years, especially in minority communities.

“Children are dying and getting shot in my district on a daily basis. They were this year. They were last year. The year before that, and the year before that,” Braynon said. “And so I’m going to continue to pass bills to help curb gun violence and access to guns whether they want to or they don’t. My heart goes out to the parents and to the children at Parkland, as my heart goes out to the parents of the two-year-old that gets shot in North-Dade, right?”

– Winter Park House Democrat state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith is back with a proposal to ban assault weapons, a bill Democrats tried but failed to include in last year’s school safety bill. Citizens are attempting an end-run around the Legislature, circulating petitions to get a ballot measure before voters in 2020 to ban assault weapons. The effort is led by the group Ban Assault Weapons Now, which calls itself a bipartisan group of concerned Floridians and includes Marjory Stoneman High School families.

– Republicans have filed several measures pushing for expanded firearms use, including allowing people to openly carry guns on college campuses and religious institutions.

– Pensacola House Republican Rep. Mike Hill has filed a measure to repeal the gun reforms passed last year.

An empty spot at the dinner table

As the Legislature prepares to debate, Pulse nightclub survivor Brandon Wolf says he wishes legislators knew – really knew – how life-shattering a mass shooting is for victims, families and friends.

Lawmakers go to work every day, he says, “while they collect paychecks from the gun lobby and the NRA.”

“I can’t sleep at night sometimes. I still can’t go to certain crowded places. I can’t go to a bar without looking for an exit,” he says. “That’s the reality for far too many Americans, and I really, really wish that for legislators it could resonate that there are tens of thousands of families out there that deal with this sort of thing every single year. (Families) that have an empty spot at the dinner table. That write one fewer Christmas card. And I wish that they took it seriously.”


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